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My mac as a music conductor

Basic knowledeges of instrumentation

    The first principle to imitate an orchestra is to have some concepts of instrumentation and orchestration. Nowadays we have the chance to have the CD which enables us to have a symphony orchestra at home. Listen to the orchestrations that you like while trying to dissect the various mixtures of tone, the roles reserved for each group, the play nuances of the different types of instruments as well as the ratios of balance within the orchestra (Be wary nevertheless because the final improvements in studio are frequent).

    If you can , read partitions regularly, train your eye at the orchestra layout : that will help you a lot because often your favorite sequencer's main window will strangely look alike.

    It is very important to respect the tessiture of each instrument, nothing is odder than to hear a flute play an F 2, it is also necessary to try to write in their correct register, there again a bassoon being persisting in playing above a B 3 will not seem very credible. The reading of a treatise on instrumentation will help you there.

    Always speaking about instrumentation try to put yourself in the position of the instrumentalists, for example if writing for the wind players, rather than to connect long values insert silences to simulate breathing. If you want long values create relays. Also think of the tiredness and the discomfort they can test in the extreme registers of their instrument.
    Let the tuba rest after a long and strong staccato phrase in its low register. Check in an instrumentation treatise if what you write can be carried out, because each instrument has a specific fingering making some passages delicate or even impossible for the instrumentalist to play.

The sound balance
    The second important notion concerning the orchestra is the sound balance. It is very important to have a notion of the ratio of volume power that exists between the different groups in the orchestra. The apparition of the M.A.O ( Musique assistée par ordinateur = Computer Assisted Music) allowed composers to experiment with wonderdully mixed sounding balances but also very often far from the reality of an orchestra.

    Here are some words of advice which hopefully will be able to help you:

  • A sentence from my friend Jean Philippe Bec, "in the piano all is worth", therefore in a low noise level you can distribute the different components of your music (melody, rhythm, harmony) to no matter who in the orchestra.
  • Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov indicates in its treatise on orchestration two current formulas being useful for the strong passages : 1 Trumpet = 1 Trombone = 1 Tuba = 2 Horns and 1 horn = 2 Flutes = 2 Oboes = 2 Clarinets = 2 Bassoons. It also states that a Wood = a section of strings (1 Flute = 1 Violons ) in a piano passage and two Woods = a section of strings (2 Flutes = 1 Violons or 1 Flute + 1 Oboe = 1 Violon ) in a forte passage . Be aware that the balance also depends on the way these instruments are being played
  • If it were necessary to classify by ascending order the power of each group, one would have the winds first , then the strings and the horns to finish. Not to mention the percussions which seldom have a melodic or harmonic function except for the instruments with a given sound (xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, etc...)
  • The tone also plays an important role, indeed, one easily locates an oboe in the middle of an orchestra whereas the horns have rather a tendency to spatialize their sound, they are thus less spotted at first listening.

    For more details on the balance between instruments of each group or between differents groups, on the harmonic balance, on what arises or not, etc … the investment in a treatise on orchestration is a very good thing.

Building an orchestral kit

    Then you will have to build up an orchestra kit. The sampler solution for me seems to be the best, but rather expensive, on the account of the various musicians playing.

    Expensive because, in addition to the machines, it will be necessary to buy yourself some banks of orchestral sounds which are pretty costly (imagine the work to sample an orchestra note by note, group by group) and then to be able to write rather freely it will also be necessary to have every aspect of the orchestra on your fingertips, which means that it is necessary to have several samplers filled to the max and a whole lot of backup.

    As for me here is the solution which I have adopted:

  • an AKAI S5000 for the horns
  • an EMU E6400 for the strings
  • a Turbo ESI 4000 for the woods
  • a Power Sampler Creamware for all that misses in particular the percussions , harp, piano etc…
  • the whole run by Digital Performer

    This system is a personal choice, but all is possible as long as all the orchestra is here.

    To save time try to pre-pan in advance, keep in mind the usual layout of the orchestra without forgetting that we live in a free world.

    This diagram (taken form the book "THE GUIDE TO MIDI ORCHESTRATION" by Paul Gilbreath) shows in a rough guide a common orchestra layout. I have added there the different graduation scales concerning the panning used in most of the samplers.

    It will then be necessary for you to choose the type of orchestra that you will be using, should it be by 2, by 3, 4 etc …this number represents the number of wood used in your orchestra (2 flutes /2 oboes/2 clarinets/2 bassoons, or 3 flutes/3 oboes/3 clarinets etc) the rest of the orchestra being balanced in comparison with the woods.
    The special instruments like the piccolo, the English horn, the low clarinet, etc‚ are played by the last of each family. As an example, the English horn is given to the Oboe II for an orchestra by 2 or to the Oboe III for an orchestra by 3 (useful for the panning).

    And thus you will have to use as many differents sounds as instruments constituting your orchestra (2 different flutes , 2 oboes etc‚) To avoid any phasing effects . I advise you to use only mono sounds for all the separate instruments , you will gain clarity there and precision (and sampler memory !). The commercial banks of sounds often offer several instruments in the same category. Warning, there is a lot of work of tuning to be done, the use of an electronic tuning device can be helpful, but checking by ear is essential.

    A good thing to do is to make a patchlist of your set as long you go along to constitute it, that will enable you thereafter to send patch changes to the samplers when you do not have enough midi channels available. It will be helpful too because that will avoid you to have as much as 80 opened tracks in the sequencer, there are already too much of them.

    After having chosen your sounds and formed your different groups, it will be necessary to work on the expression, the dynamic in particular. I have experimented several methods, the first one was to simply edit the volume curve according to the nuance I wanted to produce, but the problem was that the tone did not change whereas in the reality a violin playing forte is more brilliant than when it is played piano. To gain a little time I have prepared my sounds by assigning the modulation wheel of my master keyboard to the volume of each sound.De facto , I could perform a little more easily , but nothing new about the tone. The solution came from a hi pass filter assigned to the modulation. Thus, by lowering the wheel the volume decreases and the sound loses its brightness , making the nuance credible. This system functions well on held sounds and allows, for example, beautiful crescendo/decrescendo for the brasses, it does not replace the fact of using the according sounds for each nuance forte or piano.
    For the staccato sounds I use the same principle except that this time I assign volume and the filter to the velocity.

    Another parameter to be edited is the envelope. Create various presets of the same sound , with differents attacks.
    Beware on the other hand with the releases, never forget that when a musician turns down the sound of his instrument it is almost always immediate, only the resonance of the case remains if this instrument has one, or the sympathy of the strings if they are not all muted (for the string instruments of course).
    Prefer to work on the reverb. There again the idea is to recreate the space around the orchestra, with this intention I use a single hall reverb , I send everything inside and I seek a balance between the direct sound and the reverbed sound. I try to put myself at the place of the first rows and to restore the distances of the strings that are close to me, then the woods, the horns and the percussions at the bottom. Only the horns have a different reverb to simulate the fact that they have their bells turned towards the bottom of the room, therefore a more diffuse sound than the others.

    For the percussion sounds, I make layers, it is to say that I assign several samples to a note corresponding to different nuances (3 usually: p, mp, f) which are played according to the velocity. With the same idea in mind , you can resample instrument layers which you often use, for example for a music that I had composed, the cellos doubled 8ba by the double basses (not very original) played the theme of the villain , so I resampled the whole thing, looped each sample and spared a lot of memory and gained an ease of use, especially when you spend a lot of time on a project (and it is reusable).


    To finish try to not quantify too much to keep a human feel. When you write a long chord, shift a little the end of each note.On the contrary if the chord is played staccato,shift the attacks slightly. Imagine yourself conducting, insert ritenuto, accelerando and other nuances of expression while playing with the tempi. And above all remember that anyway, you will obtain only a tiny part of the expression capacities of a real orchestra, but is already not so bad to take pleasure.

    You can also download the two versions, one midied and the other of the real orchestra of the piece "Egg Travels" taken from the original soundtrack of the « Dinosaure » movie composed by James Newton Howard .You will find the link at the end of this article.

    "Principles of orchestration", Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov - Ed. Dover
    "Les instruments d'orchestre", A.-F. Marescotti - Ed. Jean Jobert
    "Traité de l'orchestration" en 4 volumes, Charles Koechlin - Ed. M.Eschig
    "La musique et l'image", Maurice Coignard - Ed. M.Eschig
    "The guide to midi orchestration", Paul Gilreath - Ed. Music Works
    An article concerning James Newton Howard.

    You will find a great number of orchestral sheets of music at a very reasonable price at

    I hope this article will help you on your music, do not hesitate to contact me if you have experienced other methods, I will be delighted to hear about it.

    Translated from french by Dominique Zbiegiel, aka DOMZ.

About the author: laurent
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